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Book Review: Deschooling Society

By Brendan | 2020-07-11

Deschooling Society is a modern classic of educational thought, both political treatise and speculative manifesto for how learning systems should work — if we can get free of the institutional weight of schooling.

We had the idea of a series exploring texts formative to Hyperlink's mission and philosophy, and this seemed a perfect place to start. Illich's work is vital and prescient, surprisingly fresh, and relevant to many of the principles that guide our work.

Failure of Schooling Systems

Illich's premise is simple: the system of schooling is counterproductive, driven by distorted logics, and should be replaced with a radical revisioning aligned with how learning really happens.

If schools are impersonal, commoditized, and in many ways antithetical to the core aims of education, small tweaks and piecemeal improvements to rejigger a failed system are not enough. In fact the very institutional nature of schools, their all-encompassing overreach, is bound up with their failure to fulfill their purported mission.

We have an urgent need for something different. The solution: nothing short of deschooling society — abolish schools, and shift learning to personalized, interconnected networks of learning resources in the real world.

Hidden Curriculum

Illich holds that most learning does not actually happen in school, or result from "teaching" at all. The dominance of the institution makes this an attractive illusion, but it just ain't so.

In fact, schooling has many entirely different aims, and most of them are orthogonal to actual learning.

School packages the functions of not only instruction (teaching) but certification, arbitrary rituals, and initiation into a social reality. This "hidden curriculum" falsely separates the context of learning from the real world, and alienates learners.

We need to replace "manipulative" institutions with "convivial ones" — community-developed systems, humble and human, designed for freedom, creativity, and individual empowerment. Such institutions can manifest as true public goods, like postal services useful to all citizens, rather than "false utilities" like highway systems that subsidize owners of private vehicles.

Learning Outside of School

While we're conditioned to think of school as where learning happens, it also happens just about everywhere else, too! "Everyone learns how to live outside school" — learning from peers, chance encounters, participation with all kinds of other people, places, and things.

Illich describes the more explicit of these non-school learning systems collectively as "educational webs", democratized and decentralized networks through which effective learning can happen.

One idea for how this might manifest is a network of "skill centers", local places for hands-on learning which students could visit by way of an "educational passport", working with teachers for specific skills. Another possibility is an interest-based matching system, where people are paired based on common interest in (say) a book, article, or film, and convene to discuss it together.

This is not a single system but a loose collection, knitted together across a wider civic community. In this vision, learning is less about an obligatory process of instruction, and more about facilitating journeys, matching learners with guides and co-conspirators.

Making Learning Personal

Core to this vision is re-centering the individual in the learning process. Learning, as Illich maintains, "can only be a personal activity". It's meaningful to the extent it helps the individual build a self and a place in their community. It cannot be commoditized.

This doesn't mean learning by oneself. Peers, too, play an important role. Learning is social, and to facilitate "creative, exploratory learning", it's vital to get people together who are interested in the same things.

Top down instruction is antithetical to imagination and authentic personal growth. True learning doesn't need so much manipulation, so much measurement and documentation. Learners need freedom.

Vision for Learning Exchanges

This all culminates in Illich's proposal for a multi-channel system of "learning exchanges", based on four ways of better facilitating learning:

  • Reference Services to Educational Objects: access to libraries, laboratories, presses, studios, museums — places that house the tools of learning
  • Skill Exchanges: a place for people to list their skills, and how to contact them
  • Peer-Matching: a system for learners to describe their interests and match with others exploring similar topics or questions
  • Reference Services to Educators-at-Large: a way to seek out independent professional educators, who might serve as guides for learning journeys

All of these involve rethinking modes that impose learning on people, and instead opening up a process of cultivating new relationships between learners and different facets of their learning environment, which ideally encompasses the whole world.

At its root, this is about opening up access — to information, to expert guides, to learning materials, and to other learners — and giving people agency to direct their own learning.